Why French Parents Are Superior.

IT’S ALL ABOUT REASON:

“While Americans fret over modern parenthood, the French are raising happy, well-behaved children without all the anxiety. Pamela Druckerman on the Gallic secrets for avoiding tantrums, teaching patience and saying ‘non’ with authority.”

Such is the abstract of the article “Why French Parents Are Superior” found in the Wall Street Journal on February 4, 2012. [See notes.]

To say “non” with authority, one needs to have intellectual authority to start with. The French develop the latter through a love of mental jousts (many of them about politics, sociology, ecology, history, geography, science, poetry, litterature, etc…). That intense Gallic practice of mental activity leads typical young French adults to have gone through at least 10,000 hours of intra familial debate by the end of their teenage years. So they are expert at it. They are also expert at being interesting, and being able to answer inquiries the little ones will have from all directions.

Inasmuch as the WSJ author tried her best, three years of study she says, she extracted very little from it: talk a bit firmer, sound more self assured. Step by step under the direction of a 34 year old French mom. Pathetic. To see why she so thorougly failed, keep on reading.

In truth French parents develop in their children a greater ability to present, develop arguments, and respond to them intelligently. This is done mostly through the intense practice of speech. That, in turn, comes from the love of speech, which is also imprinted, right from the start.

French parents talk more, with a richer speech between themselves, and back and forth to their children. Children are taught to not interrupt the conversations adults are having with each other. Learning not to interrupt, is viewed not as an exclusion, but an instruction, a fundamental part of education.

Speech also allows to communicate values. A child endowed with higher values, and the perspective of even the higher ones grandes personnes are responding to, understands that orders given by parents have themselves reasons. Those reasons have to be mastered to access to higher learning. It’s all about reason.

I asked two Californian parents who live (very well) in Cambridge, England, with their two American children, if they saw a difference between American and European kids. They immediately replied that European children were much better educated. This corresponds to the main difference the Wall Street Journal reporter saw in France, when she pondered why her own child was ruining her outings:

“After a few more harrowing restaurant visits, I started noticing that the French families around us didn’t look like they were sharing our mealtime agony. Weirdly, they looked like they were on vacation. French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.

Though by that time I’d lived in France for a few years, I couldn’t explain this. And once I started thinking about French parenting, I realized it wasn’t just mealtime that was different. I suddenly had lots of questions. Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?

Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves… a 2009 study, led by economists at Princeton, comparing the child-care experiences of similarly situated mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France. The researchers found that American moms considered it more than twice as unpleasant to deal with their kids. In a different study by the same economists, working mothers in Texas said that even housework was more pleasant than child care.

Rest assured, I certainly don’t suffer from a pro-France bias. Au contraire, I’m not even sure that I like living here…”.

I will explain why she cannot like to live in France; it is directly related to her child trouble.

I asked a mother born and raised in the USA who considers herself ‘fortunate‘ that her parents, although American from a young age, were not American born. She has also lived and worked in France, and has a child who has never thrown a temper tantrum, even at the age of two and a half: “Why Are French Parents Superior?

She was haughtily irritated by the question and did not try to hide it. Talking to me as if I were a dimwit she had little time for, she blasted the following reply:

“Why French Parents Are Superior, you ask? For the same reason as French are generally superior.

The key is that one has to provide reasons to the child, and, most importantly, those reasons have to make sense. These are two necessary conditions.

Americans would say that they do that. But, instead of telling the children what to do, and why, they let the children decide. But children don’t know anything, they are just children, they can’t decide, using reason. Or then American parents make up stories that don’t make sense, and, or, are not truthful, and lose all credibility that way.

You see that in adult conversations all the time, so it naturally shows up in adult-child conversations. It is in fact the lazy man’s way of communicating. Hence the continual usage of non sequiturs and constant sport analogies. As far as I can tell, only Americans do this.

When American parents say “no”, they just say “no”. They don’t say why they are saying no, they don’t explain to their child why the child’s behavior or request should be denied, and if they do, they don’t wait for the child to articulate an answer, which can take up to ten minutes. They lose all credibility that way.

American parents also expect children to throw temper tantrums, so when one happens, they rarely try to explore why. When American children ask their American parents why? or, why not? the parents typically don’t make a genuine effort to provide an understandable and coherent answer. They just think that asking someone for their reasons or motivations is hostile. It’s a cultural limitation that cannot be overcome.

And when one tells them that they should provide children with reasons, American parents think that you do not understand parenting, children just behave like that. And if your child is different, she was born with a different character, and you are lucky.

Americans, in fact, view questions about their reasons and motivations as hostile interrogation. So, when children attempt to explore that with them, they view it as an hostile inquiry, unlike the French and many other cultures. Rather than try to cultivate that form of inquiry, as French parents do, Americans try to suppress it.

And why do you ask me all these questions? There is no hope, Americans don’t have the concepts!”

I suggested that it was a bit like explaining the Hahn-Banach theorem to someone who does not know there is such a thing as functional analysis. The francophile American mother threw a Gallic shrug:”Yes, for Americans, reason is like a foreign language they never encountered before!

If anything her very French like reaction showed that Americanization is fully reversible. 

Here is Pamela from the Wall Street Journal again:

“France is the perfect foil for the current problems in American parenting. Middle-class French parents (I didn’t follow the very rich or poor) have values that look familiar to me. They are zealous about talking to their kids, showing them nature and reading them lots of books. They take them to tennis lessons, painting classes and interactive science museums.

Yet the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this… French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves…

Of course, the French have all kinds of public services that help to make having kids more appealing and less stressful. Parents don’t have to pay for preschool, worry about health insurance or save for college. Many get monthly cash allotments—wired directly into their bank accounts—just for having kids.

But these public services don’t explain all of the differences. The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait…

After a while, it struck me that most French descriptions of American kids include this phrase “n’importe quoi,” meaning “whatever” or “anything they like.” It suggests that the American kids don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes. It’s the antithesis of the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.”

Authority is one of the most impressive parts of French parenting—and perhaps the toughest one to master. Many French parents I meet have an easy, calm authority with their children that I can only envy. Their kids actually listen to them. French children aren’t constantly dashing off, talking back, or engaging in prolonged negotiations.”

[—Adapted from “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” to be published Tuesday by the Penguin Press. ]

***

PHILOSOPHICAL DEEPENING OF THE PRECEDING:

Well, what to dare add for more enlightenment? Fasten seat belts, we are going to philosophical warp speed. The problem with American parenting is deeply entangled with a formal superficiality which is devouring American society, and reason itself. This decerebration is, of course, very comfortable for the “masters of the universe” based in Wall Street.

The USA is supposed to be a democratic republic. The law is the skeleton of such a state, and it is the paradigm of mental organization, collective and individual. The American parenting deficit is a manifestation of an American cultural deficit and its nexus is a sense of justice (or lack thereof).

That cultural deficit is of foremost importance, worldwide, considering the military-economic importance of the USA.

The article in the New Yorker “The Caging Of America” laid the blame of the dismal American “justice” system on the “Bill Of Rights“. That Bill is inferior, experts say, because it emphasizes formality, formalism, and superficiality, in other words, justice as fairness (something Rawls and his “liberal” followers got all confused about).

Instead justice ought to be justice as justice. The Declaration des Droits de l’Homme insisted simply on that:”Be Just!” For the Declaration, justice is a primary notion, not a derivative notion. Who speaks of justice speaks of judgments, sentences, reasons, causes, attenuating circumstances, discovery… Justice begs for strong, inquisitive, rational, well informed minds, in other words, minds toddlers will respect.

Toddlers respect good judgment. Toddlers instinctively rebel against bad judgment, and any mockery of the nobility of the human spirit, such as a travesty of reason.

The New Yorker points out that formalism has devoured true justice in the USA, and has made the incarceration mood pervasive throughout American society, from individuals covered with tattoos to clothes mimicking prison garb, to shoes without laces.

But formalism has devoured other things, all the way to parental facial expression, and viewing any explanation as a conflict to be avoided absolutely.

The emphasis on formalism throughout American society is striking. Murderers bathing in the blood of their victims have walked free, in the USA, because the police had no warrant (don’t try that in France!). A Chinese contractor formally presents a lower bill for a giant bridge, it gets formally accepted. Never mind that the USA loses industrial substance as a result. Etc.

Formalism, in the beginning, looks pragmatic, because it is easy to bestow. Formalism is reason reduced to its most basic. Formalism is a parody of rationality.

Toddlers have a deep instinctive dislike of irrationality. They observe, early on, that reason makes them strong, whereas irrationality assaults them. Parents choosing irrationality choose the Dark Side, as far as toddlers are concerned.

Exerting formalism blocks the exertion of reason as much as exerting justice requires. In any case the reign of formalism is how outrageous American meta principles such as “don’t be judgmental”, “don’t argue”, “stop rationalizing” have appeared.

How can a toddler sit in judgment of his own behavior, if his parents refuse, or are incapable, to do so? And, even worse, if they have not learned to exert enough judgment to establish the cadre of what is acceptable, and what is not?

And sure enough, the toddler in chief could not bring himself to find reasons to judge bankers, because it was a case where he had to find within himself, enough to transcend the formalism of formal politeness he owed to his sponsors. Looked at it formally, the USA is doing OK. Looked at it in all justice, not that much.  

And why can’t our Wall Street Journal reporter like to live in France, in her present state?

I went back to the francophile American mother who knows France much better than the WSJ reporter. She told me:

“Living well in France is all about loving reason, more than authority.

Instead, the WSJ reporter feels it’s all about French parents having more authority. She does not understand authority has a foundation, and its name is reason. She completely misses the mark, even after three years of studying it intensely. Why? Because she is American. Case closed.”  

France’s main pastime is not cheese and wine, it’s contradicting authority with reason.

This was already the case in the Middle Ages during the “Jacqueries” (14 C), and before that, when the philosopher Abelard (and the people behind him) opposed the religious, crusading fanatics led by Saint Bernard and the papacy (12C). Actually French history is all about a perpetual war between authority and reason.

The very foundational act of “Francia”, by the Franks, in 486 CE, was the act, tried persistently by the Franks for two centuries before that, to pry reason out of the jaws of fascist and theocratic authority (these notions were at the heart of the conflict between Greco-Romans and Celto-Germans, for a full millennium prior).

Submitting, and boosting, authority with reason is the master value of French culture. Thus it should show up on French children’s playgrounds, and it does.

Another related command: only reason can contradict authority, and authority is full of reason. (The resulting respect for authority sometimes backfire in French society.)

Thus, when authority is exerted, it better be full of reason, so it is full of reason. French toddlers learn this, and if they perceive the authority, they know reasons are not far behind, and they plead no contest, as it is the path of less effort.

***

Patrice Ayme

***

Note 1: Yes, the Wall Street Journal is francophile nowadays. (Amazingly, Murdoch’s WSJ does not censor me, and publishes me within three seconds, whereas the New York Times does all sorts of naughty things to my comments: thus, I have nearly stopped commenting in the NYT. This to point out that the NYT is not as “liberal” as the mob has it.)

***

Note 2:

French Lessons [Wall Street Journal]:

Children should say hello, goodbye, thank you and please. It helps them to learn that they aren’t the only ones with feelings and needs.

When they misbehave, give them the “big eyes”—a stern look of admonishment.

Allow only one snack a day. In France, it’s at 4 or 4:30.

Remind them (and yourself) who’s the boss. French parents say, “It’s me who decides.”

Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Kids have to learn how to cope with some frustration.

Further French Lessons [Tyranosopher]:

Children also have to learn delayed gratification and being satisfied with what they have. Otherwise they would end up, or rather down, like Americans, with debts up the wazoo, enslaved by banks and Wall Street.

Inasmuch as speech with the vocal chords is important, facial and body language are even more readily understood, by the little ones. The “big eyes” the Wall Street Journal reporter is obsessed by is only part of the story. The rigid, expressionless faces of all too many American women go a long way to explain their dysfunctional relationship with their children.

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15 Responses to “Why French Parents Are Superior.”

  1. Chris Snuggs Says:

    The French are superior to Yankis in just about every way you can imagine. Except of course in their choice of leaders. In this they are both equally appalling.

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Chris: Having supported Obama with extravagant ardor, money and time, while it’s only now, three years later, that he remotely evokes doing something vaguely related to what needs to be done, well, it breaks my heart to agree with you.
      I could not tell you when there was a really good American or French leader. FDR acted really well in his first years, de Gaulle during the second world war (but awfully during the Franco-Algerian civil war). Churchill acted extremely well after becoming PM, but awful before.
      PA

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      • Paul Handover Says:

        What fun to see Chris’s comment. Too many years ago, Chris invited me to teach at the French College that he was working for and for a number of years I taught Sales and Marketing there. (ISUGA in Quimper, NW France.)

        The students were a mix of young French and young Chinese and were incredibly attentive. Made spending time in France a very rewarding event.

        I also taught at a local college in SW England, I used to live in that region of the UK, and while the students were fine, there was a missing something, let me call it focus, with the UK audiences.

        Patrice, very interesting essay indeed. P.

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        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Dear Paul:
          I guess UK audiences will soon re-focus as the enchroaching Greater Depression bears down. All Europe, all the West, needs to re-focus on reality. Austerity is needed but it should affect the plutocrats, and the free riders, to leave capital for workers and worthy investments.

          Chris feels very strongly about Europe, and he does not hesitate, rightly so, to brandish the f word: fascism. Although I agree with lots of things Hollande says, I cannot agree to retirement at 60. That’s positively insane (when GDP was growing fast in France, the work week was 40 hours, and retirement was at 65… Now that life span has augmented by 5 years, they want to push retirement down to 60????? A cousin of mine, a surgeon and clinic owner is furious about being pushed into retirement…)

          Thanks for appreciating the essay. As Islamists gain in the Mid-Earth, voters ought to be reminded that Islam is a false friend…
          All right, now to bring my measles vaccinated child to the doctor because she apparently nevertheless got a highly contagious measles from China, just arrived. she is getting covered with red spots in the last hour, although she does not act sick…
          PA

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  2. arno kroner Says:

    thank you for writing this. I’m French and I’ve lived for 15 years in the US (plus the years going to school here), mostly in SoCal. I have two children who go to a French school.

    What has been highlighted as being the main differences between French and American parenting styles (to a large extent – generalizations are generalizations) pretty much reflects my experience witnessing American parents (a majority of them) raising their kids.

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Arno: Thanks for your various comments in the Wall Street Journal, I very much appreciate them.

      Yes, ultimately it is a question of which civilization we want to have, not a question of nationalism. The USA of today is a very different place of that of the USA of 1945, for better, and worse. Same for Europe. generalizations are generalizations, but bell shaped curves are centered somewhere… I have decided to NOT send my own toddler to preschool in California, after visiting a few schools. Next year, i will probably explore French schools, in France. I have already determined there is a fabulous school in Cambridge, UK… They start at 4…
      PA

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  3. Momo Says:

    Tout lu. Très intéressant. Nous en parlerons.

    Like

  4. Alexi Helligar Says:

    My parents are French and they did insist that their children respect parental authority. When it came to being reasonable (after all they were fundamentalist Christians) they weren’t so hot. Being gay and black drove me as an adult to suspect authority and insist on reasonableness.

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      @ Alexi: well, nothing like being a somewhat oppressed and despised or rejected, or suspected minority to get one thinking.

      That was my case my entire life, having lived all of it as an outsider and outcast. I learned to live my difference as an inferiority, I viewed it as a proof of my manifest superiority, in the Black Power, Black Pride, tradition.

      Actually that tradition, of being proud of one’s difference, was started by Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the most important French thinkers, also for 40 years, the first president of Senegal… Senghor and the Martiniquais Cesaire celebrated “negritude”, being proud to be black, niger in Latin… In Africa, where I spent my childhood, black is a most popular color, by the way…
      PA

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  5. Bernard de Nice: Says:

    Bon sang mais c’est bien sur!

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  6. Tomas Says:

    Re: Note 2
    My Texan mother:
    manners – check
    “the big eyes look” – check
    one snack – mostly check
    boss – double check
    “no” – check (especially about that motorcycle)

    Americans used to raise their children the French Way. Baby Boomers dropped the ball. They try to be their kids friends—bad idea. Enjoy your thoughts. Fun to read.

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Hi Tomas:
      Yes, you are entirely right, the French just keep on doing what (say) American parents were doing 50 years ago. Let’s call that civilizational, or devolutional drift. In general the Americans who fought WWII would be baffled by what is going on in the USA right now.

      An amusing but important thing is happening in Europe: the German government behave like the French gov used to, and the French gov now like the USA gov. Meanwhile the British gov calls the French socialist, although it has higher taxes on income, and a financial transaction tax(!!!!). The Greek gov makes the people sacrify, while protecting its richest cows. A lot of these things are happening, with the People completely unawares.

      That’s because Sarkozy joined the plutocratic cult and its great popes, Clinton, Bush II, Obama (amazingly Reagan, who often amuses me a lot, although I detest most of his policies, was notorious pro-plutocratic, although never went where those three went, feeding the deficit by taxes on the rich, as Sarko did to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars. In particular Reagan was not senile enough to avoid prosecuting the banksters. He and Bush I prosecuted more than 10,000…)

      Regime change is incoming in France, and that will force massive changes through the EU. (The Socialists will force the latest EU treaty rewriting, as they will refuse to ratify it.) A minister of Sarkozy just got indicted for getting money from the third richest person in France (a tiny amount relative to a Superpac).

      Anyway thanks for appreciating. That counts a lot. I was demotivated in recent days, because although I received positive feedback from at least four people who count, somebody I counted as a friend grossly insulted me about the latest essay, calling me very bad names… I was actually shocked. We have, worldwide, to capture the best civilizational traits and try to implement them. And we have to do this methodically, not by getting entangled in tribal pride…
      PA

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  7. Tomas Says:

    I’m a fairly long time reader and have learned much from reading your work. Never commented because I don’t really have the chops to add value to most discussions. Remember: ugly, harsh criticism generally says more about the critic than the subject of the criticism.

    Ha! As a Texan (but living in Brooklyn for 2 decades), I know a bit about tribal pride. Carry on my friend, we’re out here.

    All the best,

    Tom

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    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Tomas: Thank you for being a long time reader and asserting that you learned much from my (sometimes over-enthusiastic) efforts. The question of “ugly, harsh criticism” is complicated. The Nazis, for example, hid behind the principle that it said more about the authors of such criticism: criticize them too harsh and too ugly, and they called you unhinged, and anti-German. The Stalinists used that method even more successfully: one was an “objective ally of great capital“,

      If one directed towards them the ugly and harsh criticism they fully deserved.
      Islamists do the same. If one mentions that 25% of lebanese youth have to marry in Cyprus to escape the religious sectarian laws in Lebanon, and that can be tracked directly to the fascist directive that “Christian” and “Muslim” of the Internet generation cannot marry together, they call that “ugly and harsh criticism”. By the way, this is the case in Syria, and a cause of great furor of some of the best youth against the regime (I will contrast “best” and “Islamist”).
      And of course, there are the big financiers. Their main shield has been the respect that they enjoy. That respect will only crack when it has been submitted to withering “harsh, ugly criticism”…

      So I think that what matters primarily is whether the criticism is mostly true, or not (you knew i was going to say that). A bit of going over the top, and lyrically waxing ought to be allowed, because the perpetrators use it themselves to their advantages. I mean they use outrage, and just to be fair and balanced we would have to use as much outrage as they do, just with a minus sign.

      I do believe that many have the capability to contribute to thinking, precisely because there is something as over-education, which is often just the memorization of stereotyped reasoning. Simple people can say simple things, and those are often the strongest. Long ago, as I was studying general relativity, I was pontificating to family members, and my dad asked a few simple questions. He was a geologist, not a physicist, and he always had a healthy skepticism towards academia (he just discovered giant oil and gas fields). However, I felt perfectly incapable of answering his pointed questions about the size of the universe, the Big Bang, etc. They were all very simple questions, and those question no cosmologist can still answer them, decades later.

      So please don’t hesitate to contribute your tribal observations. I will even concede to the anti-French philosopher Herder, the enemy of Goethe, that tribalism can sometimes be good. Once again, it’s all about being right or not. Overall. That is also why, although I detest, or even hate, many policies conducted in Israel, I am often silent about the Hebrew state. A small tribe can be very useful, if it is very right about a few important things.
      PA

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  8. kids Says:

    kids…

    […]Why French Parents Are Superior. « Some of Patrice Ayme’s Thoughts[…]…

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